Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dispute resolution in competitive gaming

In chess tournaments, all players, from tykes who have barely ceased to wear diapers, to seniors who have taken it up again, learn the protocol of quietly stopping the clock and seeking out a director. In bridge tournaments, where the median age is about sixty, an aggrieved player feebly calls out "director" at a volume slightly above the standard hushed table chatter, and helplessly waits for someone to show up. In Magic, the teenage pro screams "JUDGE!" and imperiously waits for his demand to be met. Poker players, generally aged twenty-one and up, tend to have the good fortune of having floor personnel nearby, and can call out for a director or floorman in a reasonable voice and it doesn't take long for disputes to be resolved.

Harbor no illusions, however, about poker players being sensible or having good manners; as a group, the way they play their cards and the decorum with which they address their tablemates should quickly quash any such notion. They produce significantly more cash flow for the hosts of their events than other gamers do, which inclines the staff to be more sensitive to their needs. In this regard, poker sits at an odd threshold between other kinds of gaming and other kinds of gambling. Poker brings casinos negligible profit compared to traditional casino games, but by comparison chess, bridge, and Magic tournaments as capitalistic ventures are a joke for tournament organizers, who tend to be motivated more by the love of the game and the service to their gaming community.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

on the life of a degenerate seeker of +EV

One particular idiot yesterday chastised me for smoothcalling a raise with pocket aces in a live single-table SNG at Hawaiian Gardens. "NEVER slowplay aces", he declared. He babbled some faulty analysis of the hand, then left the table, as he no longer had any chips. Then he wandered back to berate me some more, and I explained that I was not actually interested in receiving a poker lesson from him. He went on to say "Well, every pro agrees with me," a spectacular claim. Irritated, I told him that couldn't be true, since I did not. He said I must not be a pro because he had never heard of me, but at this point he was satisfied with his trolling, and departed for good. Aside from being an abject douchebag, he also betrayed an inherent lack of understanding of what the word "professional" means.

I play poker for a living. I am not famous. I am not rich. I simply show a net profit when I play poker and it is adequate to cover my living expenses. If I ask what your profession is, whether you answer law clerk, dental hygienist, options trader, or fry cook, would it not be most peculiar if I stated you must be lying about what you do for a living, since I had never heard of you?

I suspect that NO poker pro would categorically say that you must NEVER slowplay pocket aces, although naturally pros at all levels hold varying degrees of opinions on the frequency with which such a play should be employed. If someone is making a living at poker and holds such a belief, I'd really like to have access to the games he or she is playing in.

One of my favorite movies is the awkwardly titled "White Men Can't Jump". Awkward not because the title isn't catchy, but because it's not really about basketball, and it's not about some white/black culture clash. It's about the life of a marginally successful hustler, a guy who is perpetually a fish out of water in the environment in which he's chosen to immerse himself to make a living, and the impact the lack of security and his questionable decision-making skills have on his personal relationships. Like Billy Hoyle, my life is strange, free, exhilarating, heartbreaking and frustrating.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What rough beast slouches towards my apartment to be born?

Finally, after weeks of procrastination and excuses, I am going to attempt to assemble the strange behemoth of jumbled parts which claims, according to the box, to be a new vacuum cleaner.

Later edit: Many thanks go to my dear friend Jessica Bang, who, unfettered by the cumbersome and erroneous printed instructions, and unafraid to experiment, succeeded where I had failed, and defeated the monster's efforts to avoid being fitted together into a functioning appliance.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dawkins, Schweinshaxe, and Ann Patrick Green

So my lovely fiancee and I attended the Atheist Alliance International convention in Los Angeles this past weekend. We showed up around 5:30. We started the night with PZ Myers, whose talk was in a small room, which was a mistake on the part of the organizers. People were crammed in, standing in the aisles, and sitting on the floor. Then we watched a live stream of Bill Maher taping his show, then Dawkins and Maher showed up at the convention, and the former presented the latter with an award.

Laurence Krauss' talk, Saturday morning, was my favorite. It was mostly cosmology. I talked to Michael Shermer a bit. It was cool to see him there; as he identifies himself as agnostic, I didn't really think he would show up. I briefly met Laurence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. I'm sure they get buttonholed a hundred times a day each at these things, so, lacking anything earthshattering to say, I just greeted them and shook their hands. Dawkins asked a question after another scientist's talk, and I was impressed at his concise delivery and how he immediately returned to his seat when he finished speaking, so when I asked a question I did my best to emulate him. Dawkins' book signing had several hundred in line, so I passed, although I picked up a copy of his new book, which I am now working on.

Dennett talked about the silliness of theology and how seminary works. It was a fascinating and memorable talk. I briefly interrupted him while he was having lunch to tell him that I enjoyed Breaking the Spell. After his talk in the evening, I wanted to get a chance to talk to him, but I wasn't that interested in his current book, so I passed on the book signing.

Sunday morning, we missed Eugenie Scott to rush back to Orange County to see an incredibly disappointing piano recital by local teacher Ann Patrick Green at the Richard Nixon Library, then for some reason we had dinner at Jägerhaus in Anaheim. To summarize the weekend:

Dawkins and co. versus God: The atheists won, but it was hardly a fair fight, with the loser not actually existing, thereby unable to speak for himself.
Ann Patrick Green versus Chopin: APG lost.
Carol versus pork knuckles: this was a heroic battle; I think we can call it a draw.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

carcinogenic fumes, litter, and fire hazards

As I was leaving the campus yesterday, I saw a girl finish smoking her cigarette and drop the smoldering butt in front of the music building (smoking is expressly verboten on campus). In a flash of inspiration, I grabbed it and ran up behind her at the stoplight as she was talking on her cell phone. As I handed it back to her, I said with a smile, in a low-key friendly sort of way, "Hi, can you do me a favor? Take this with you, don't leave it on campus? Thanks." I didn't know what to expect, but she took it from me, I guess to avoid having to interact with me; she dropped it again as soon as my back was turned. Another guy was standing at the stoplight with us and thought it was pretty funny. I'm not sure what I got out of it, but I guess that when someone behaves in a way that is an appalling combination of stupid and inconsiderate, it's nice to be able to point it out to them without having to use those precise words. I guess it has a nonzero chance of altering their future behavior.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Laws and Sausages

A well-known chestnut is "People who like laws and sausages should probably not watch them being made." These two things are associated in another way: My German class on Monday is immediately followed by my political science class.


It's long been a puzzling phenomenon to teachers that the results of their informal polls which are conducted by show of hands do not add up to 100% of the students. And these aspiring pollsters sometimes comment on what they see as a logical absurdity, with quips such as "so I guess of the fifty of you, thirty were born inside the United States, ten were born outside the United States, and the other ten... were not born?" (Example made up.)

They're just lacking a good control question. Not everyone present has agreed to participate in a show of hands survey. Not everyone might be paying attention. I think that if you want to poll your audience this way, you're better off if you start with a test question: "Raise your hand if you're willing to participate in a show of hands survey."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

war of attrition

This morning I gave my apartment's resident feline, codename Evie, a flea bath. Invasion began abruptly with the shock and awe of fully immersing a cat in water. There were few casualties on either side during this phase; regardless, Evie remained much aggrieved by the strategy employed in her liberation from the tyrannical fleas.

After coalition forces' application of shampoo and the deaths of many hostiles, my first declaration of "I think that's the last one," aka, "Mission Accomplished," turned out to be premature. As the situation deteriorated, I think that if there had been any other cats nearby, whether they actually liked fleas or not, it would not have been difficult to recruit them into joining the fleas' cause in their war against me with an appeal to moral outrage over Evie's plight.

As we were able to avoid this complication, and despite the fact that the fleas had an unfair advantage in that they were all willing to fight to the death, and I believed that our efforts would be in vain unless we removed them all, the final results were:

flea deaths from poisoning by shampoo, drowning, or bisection with tweezers:
Approximately 30.
Significant scratches inflicted on humans: 2.
Wounded feline dignities, exacerbated by ensuing shivers: 1.

Overall, the fleas sustained the most casualties, but I don't think anyone really won.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pascal's Wager

My younger brother, whose bicycling blog you can read here, has sent me an email drawing my attention to Pascal's Wager. I am familiar with this argument, and I went to write an email concerning my thoughts on it, and it turned into a blog post. Here goes.

Pascal's Wager, in short, analyzes four possibilities, which come about from flipping the switches on the on/off possibilities of a person believing in a god (presumeably the Christian one), and this god actually existing.

If you do not believe and you are right, you're fine.
If you do not believe and you are wrong, you're toast.
If you believe, you stand to lose nothing or gain everything. It doesn't matter if you're wrong, and if you're right, you've hit the jackpot.
Therefore it is better to believe.

The argument appears to have the following fatal flaws.
1) It supposes that it is possible to choose to believe something, as if belief were a matter of trifling convenience, like deciding what flavor of icing you'd like on your birthday cake.
2) Pascal's wager is an injunction to those who do not believe. He says, shouldn't you believe, just in case? In other words, even if you don't believe, pretend that you do. If the universe had an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infallible, perfect Creator, don't you suppose such an entity would fail to be deceived by such a feeble attempt at intellectual charlatanism?
3) Pretending for a moment that the above insurmountable obstacles were somehow of no consequence, let's go along with this egregious intellectual and moral cowardice for a moment. Believe just in case. Believe what? Believe Christianity? What if Islam is true? Then you burn just the same. What if Bahai is true? What if Zoroaster got it right? And so forth. The wager does not actually recommend any particular faith, and it cannot. If the universe has a creator who desires worship, and organized religion is its multiple choice question for you: A) Islam, B) Christianity, C) Hinduism, D) Scientology, and so on, then every believer should expect damnation by sheer probability. (I plagiarized this point from Sam Harris, neuroscientist and polemic author of "The End of Faith" and "Letters to a Christian Nation".)
4) What if there is a creator, but he rewards rationality, and punishes belief without evidence (aka faith)? You had better be rational, just in case, for if you believe, you have gained everything, and if you are wrong, you have lost nothing. This inversion of the argument shows how ridiculous it truly is.

I wonder, since the argument is so silly, whether or not the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal was actually joking, and perhaps suggesting why he was a secret atheist, when to admit such a thing would have been to be tortured to death by those meek and mild Christians with their Biblical teachings.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

xenophobia, door to door evangelists, and defining fundamentalism


Christmas eve I attended a medium size church down the street, Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Brea. This congregation is a member of the Missouri Synod, which fits it under my current working definition of fundamentalism, which is a doctrine of the "infallible" or "inerrant" Bible, as opposed to merely "inspired". So far, most churches seem to hold to this idea. Further research is required before I determine whether it is so prevalent that I need to develop a different definition of "fundamentalism" in order to reflect what people actually mean by the word. I realize hundreds of millions of people can barely even agree what "Christian" means, but a working definition of fundamentalism would still be helpful for analyzing Christian issues.

I recognized a meme from the Christmas Eve sermon, that was familiar to me as a former fundamentalist, and I think that Christians in general will find familiar: an identification of the Christian perspective versus "the world's" perspective. This is essentially tribalism. In Christian circles, there is a certain usage of "the world" or "worldly" that is quite negative. I think all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, tend to fail to recognize the harmful nature of this xenophobic Us and Them dichotomy.

This meme is so cherished, I think, that if you point it out to a Christian, most will defend it with the same kind of triangulations they tend to fall into when defending the core beliefs of their faith. I imagine a response along the lines of "Well, we're not pitting ourselves against the rest of the world, we're pitting ourselves against Satan." (They, of course, think no such thing; it is simply the world, vague and undefined.) I would find this inconsistent with another Christian idea, which is not that there are the people of Jesus and the people of Satan, but rather, the saved and the lost. The lost, Christians contend, can still become found, being neither the people of Satan nor the enemy. Surely, then, "the world" should not be something to teach people to be opposed to. It matters what words we use, and there are negative consequences of using "the world" to mean something negative.

Naturally, if Christians are wrong, and there is no Satan, then some unfortunate people are going to serve as a proxy for this imaginary enemy, and my contention is that this is exactly what happens. The burden falls on various groups, both real and imagined, some examples including the Jews, Islam, liberals, and the New World Order, depending on what circles you move in. This tribalism has real, detrimental, observable and measurable effects for millions, if not billions, of humans, Christian and otherwise.


On a lighter note, I got a flash of inspiration recently about door to door evangelists. I have a new policy, and encourage all my fellow atheists to adopt it as well. Invite them in, and argue with them endlessly. I'll be polite and respectful in my discourse, and offer them a drink. I'll ask innocent and reasonable questions, and make polite objections on logical grounds. I'll be prepared to let this go on for six hours, and wait for them to take their leave.

If you have any experience with the religious, you know that evangelists never offer any new arguments. Employing circular argument (believe the Bible because it is from God, we know God exists because the Bible says so), appeal to emotion (Jesus will save you from your sins), and appeal to force (believe or burn forever), they clearly have no use for innovation, since they have such success with these. If you don't have much experience with their ideas, it doesn't take much to prepare yourself; intellectually, it is hardly heavy lifting.

There are a few good reasons I plan to do this, aside from the simple fact that it will amuse me to no end. Primarily, I'll be performing a vital service to my community. As long as they're in my house, they won't be knocking on anyone else's door. This could prevent dozens or even hundreds of my neighbors from being exposed to the evangelist's poisonous, backward, and immoral ideas. Additionally, to use a gambler's language, it is a total freeroll. I have nothing to lose from this, but I have a nonzero chance to gain, if I can plant a small seed of doubt that could shake their faith.

Merry Christmas


Yes, Merry Christmas. My usage of this phrase, as an atheist, may confuse theists and atheists alike. But I see no problem. Some people say "happy holidays". I am unsure whether this is due to an aversion to mentioning Jesus, or merely a desire to be politically correct; I am guessing either could be true depending on who says it. This doesn't seem to get anywhere if you're trying to endorse secularism, as "holidays" means "holy days". That's not what it means now, my fellow secularists may argue. Well, "Merry Christmas," when I say it, doesn't mean "Celebrate the birth of Jesus!" any more than I use "good-bye" to mean "God be with you", for which it is a contraction. I hang Halloween decorations, and so do you, be you secularist or theocrat, without any belief that they ward off evil spirits, as the originators of this tradition did.

While I'm at it, I note the absurdity of the politically correct who sing Chanukkah songs at Christmas time, but do not notice, let alone make any cultural concessions to, any other Jewish holiday. Chanukkah is a minor holiday. If you want your confused, uninformed, liberal "tolerance" to at least make a small amount of sense, then make a cultural nod to Passover, or to Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, at the appropriate time of year. Do you even know when the High Holy Days are? No? I find something condescending and hypocritical in this observation of Chanukkah by Christians.

But getting back to Jesusmas, I could celebrate the birth of Jesus if I so chose, I suppose. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men, is a nice enough sentiment, even if alleged miracles and fulfillment of prophecy is rubbish. Jesus had some good teachings on offer. Morally, as Dawkins points out, he was probably far ahead of his time. Personally, I'd probably rather celebrate the birth of Bertrand Russell, but I wouldn't be expecting many to join me. But the fact is, I enjoy the giving and receiving of presents, and Christmas trees and lights and decorations, and holiday music, from Michael Praetorius and Handel to Irving Berlin and Leroy Anderson; it has nothing to do with Jesus, for me. It's my cultural tradition and I love this stuff; I see no need to turn my back on it.



Last night on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Nancy Gibbs delivered a monologue on her impressions of this year's holiday season. I would like to point to two things she said: the first was thoughtless and ignorant; the second reveals what I think is an essential truth about the difference between religious and nonreligious people.

First, "The Black Friday news about the Wal-Mart employee trampled to death as he opened the doors at dawn seemed to promise an especially Darwinian holiday season; only the fittest survive." Darwinian? I have difficulty understanding how a graduate of Yale - summa cum laude - and Oxford could display such ignorance of the fundamentals of biology. Darwin would see no trace of his theory in this event. Natural selection did not kill Jdimytai Damour; bad luck, mass hysteria, criminal negligence by Wal-Mart in inadequate security, and irresponsible behavior by one of his co-workers in taunting the crowd, did. Survival of the fittest refers to adaptability to one's environment, not accidents due to stampedes. I doubt that Gibbs would contend that Damour's co-workers had some advantage, conferred by a genetic mutation in a common ancestor, that naturally selected them to survive the incident while he, lacking this gene, did not. If she actually understood the word she was using, that would literally be what she meant: that Damour died because of his genes, and that his untimely demise was natural and beneficial to humankind, in that it kept him from burdening the gene pool with offspring that would carry on his disadvantageous genes. But, I am willing to explain away her passing remark with ignorance rather than attribute it to malevolence.

Some may feel that I am splitting hairs or quibbling about an innocent remark. The fact is that anti-evolution propaganda has had a deleterious effect on the quality of our science education and the public understanding of important scientific issues, so this is an issue it is constructive to be sensitive about. While I assume Gibbs certainly did not intend to speak antiscientifically, it is important that our respected newspeople promote understanding, not ignorance.

Second, "December sometimes feels like one long final exam, a character test for many people of many faiths, whose holy days fall before year's end." At first, when I listened to this remark, I was offended, at the implication that cultural participation in our holiday traditions is for people of faith, and therefore, not for people without faith. But upon further reflection, despite the fact that I find the idea of "holiness", for a day or for any other thing, to lack meaning, I find this remark simply reflects on one of the greater truths about atheists. We need no character test, no holy-days, to be good. Insofar as I, as an atheist, am good, I am good of my own accord; my desire for philanthropy stems not from a desire to please any god, nor fear of punishment if I am not good. I require no Holy Ghost over my shoulder. As I am accountable to myself, my conscience is more reliable than an entity with whom you can have no observable contact, and whose existence, through religious ritual, you must constantly be reassuring yourself is plausible (i.e., not ridiculous!), lest you fail to keep the faith.

Peace on earth, goodwill toward humankind. Merry Christmas.


the Beethoven fallacy


Beethoven's birthday, December 16 passed without much comment by me. I confess that, despite being a musician, I am not much of a musicologist, so I don't have much original insight to offer about Beethoven's life/music/significance/historical context, aside from the irrelevant fact that Beethoven's baptism is known to be December 17, but we're not really sure about the date of birth.

But I've decided that I shouldn't let this week go by without some reference to Beethoven, so I'll spill some pixels here to address the Beethoven fallacy, which can be found all over the Internet. Here I quote one version, chosen at random from a list of google hits:

"If you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis, would you recommend that she have an abortion?

If you said yes, you just killed Beethoven."

Let's first address the spread of fictional information about Beethoven. There is no historical evidence that his mother had syphilis. And he was not the last of nine, but rather, the second of seven children, and the eldest of the three that survived infancy. This was typical of infant mortality rates in the days before widespread understanding of the germ theory of disease, and the discovery and usage of antibiotics and vaccines.

But then let's pretend this fiction were actually true. You still have the problem that this idea, intended to advocate against abortion, is a total non-argument. I'll explain: The suggestion is that preventing any birth would be a bad thing because that birth could result in a person who is a genius, or a brilliant artist, or someone who makes a great and lasting contribution to society. On the face of it, this may seem to be a compelling argument. However, let's look at some logical consequences. It implies that we should all strive to have as many births as possible, for fear of failing to produce a potential genius. We should all copulate as much as possible, and never use any contraception. Is there anything wrong with this idea?

"But," the abortion opponent will object, "that's not the argument at all. Equating abortion with birth control is downright offensive. Some of us are okay with contraception, some of us are against it. But you can't equate it with taking a human life..."

And herein lies the problem. The fallacy perpetrated here is used to advance an argument, but it makes the assumption that the debate is resolved. Whether a fetus actually is indeed a human child with all the implicit rights thereof is in fact a central issue in the debate, but note the wording. "You just killed Beethoven." This argument pretends that the debate is already won and is predicated upon that assumption, which can be classified under the fallacy we call "begging the question".

More on abortion later.


Shaq loves porn?


I find it amusing that Shaq gives his made-up ordinance a seemingly random number, 2257, when I doubt this number is random at all. I suggest there's a reasonable chance it came from his subconscious. If you look at almost any pornography on the Internet, you'll see this number at the bottom of every page. It is a reference to "US 2257", the administrative law which specifies record-keeping requirements for producers of sexually explicit material in order to ensure that all participants are of legal age, in accordance with the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act.

While I don't think he chose it on purpose, I kinda doubt that's a coincidence. More likely, I think, he'd simply been looking at too much porn, and as a result, 2257 was the first arbitrary number he could come up with for some kind of statute or ordinance. =)


American media culture and the Fairness Doctrine

According to Wikipedia, "The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was (in the Commission's view) honest, equitable, and balanced." It was abolished in 1987. There is occasionally some stir of interest in bringing it back, and on the flip side, there is interest in passing legislation forbidding the FCC to reinstate it.

I am disappointed to learn that Nancy Pelosi is interested in bringing it back. The Wikipedia entry on the Fairness Doctrine also quotes New Mexico's junior senator, Jeff Bingaman, describing the heyday of the doctrine as he recalls it: "I think the public discussion was at a higher level and more intelligent in those days than it has become since."

I am against the FD for a good reason, and not because the underlying principle is inherently bad (it isn't), rather because not only is there no need for the government to be sticking its nose in here, but it is inappropriate and harmful. Some institutions are better at regulating themselves than the government ever could be (clearly this is not generally true of our financial institutions). I do like the way scientists apply the scientific method and submit papers for peer review. But do you think the government should make laws establishing standards for these practices? Of course not. The science community is self-correcting.

And journalism has its own standards, of responsibility and objectivity. In addition to the fact that news networks have their reputation to uphold, and therefore, in general, can be trusted to adhere to these standards, there is also a surplus of available news sources anywhere in the country. It is undeniable that individual news sources have their own slant, but many people like the opportunity to see the day's events through the lens of someone with biases similar to theirs. Those who carry it too far pay a price in credibility with their peers and with the general public. No extra fine is necessary.

What of Senator Bingaman's comment wishing for the imagined glory days of the news in his youth? Does he really think that this authoritarian position is going to improve the quality of news reporting? Is there some explanation, aside from a universal wish for things to be the way they once were, for this perception that maybe the quality of our news reporting has degenerated a bit?

I think there is an explanation, but an unrelated one. It springs from corporations whose business is in reporting the news gaining increased understanding of how to maximize profits in that area. Cable news is now opinion-driven and edgy. The pundits report and comment simultaneously. Experts and public figures are called and have to give 30 second answers to tricky, but not necessarily substantive, questions.

I should be surprised to hear anyone disagree with me when I say that edginess is probably not an important attribute of quality news reporting. Nor do I expect anyone to disagree that the highest quality news you can get (without having to search for it yourself online, sifting through dozens of sources), along with the most thoughtful and insightful opinions you'll hear, is available from National Public Radio. There are no commercials, giving more time for substantive discussion of today's issues, and the reporting itself is driven not by profit, but by providing an essential public service.

But Americans like to watch TV. So, what I want to know is, why is there no dedicated public TV news station? Are the startup costs too high? Is it too challenging to maintain through membership drives, the way our arts-oriented public channels are? I think it would be worth it to find out what the obstacles are and to make a concerted effort to overcome them.

The benefits of news-driven public television are potentially enormous, and not just in better informing the general public. For example: I think our media culture heavily influences our political culture. (Duh, right?) I like to watch C-SPAN. And I'm frequently baffled by the hostile tone so often employed by our legislators when they question experts. The experts are there to give hard data, genuine insight, and qualified opinion. If you're going to argue with the expert, what's the point? I understand the value of asking probing questions to gain further insight, but these congressmen and senators are frequently treating these objective experts like hostile witnesses in court when they feel that the information being delivered doesn't jive with their preferred ideology.

If you agree that this must be at least partly due to the example set in the media, then it follows that we need to somehow improve the nature of the discourse that is wired into all our TV sets during prime time. How can we do that? With public television news and commentary. Imagine if, instead of the hysteria of the O'Reilly Factor and Hardball, we had someone like Charlie Rose having a simple, insightful conversation with, say, Barack Obama, and this was broadcast into homes at 8 PM instead of in the wee hours of the morning.

Not everyone wants to really hear the news. But some of us do. Making this alternative available would improve public understanding of issues and candidates, for those of us who would tune in.

Fooling around with the anthropic principle


Within the anthropic principle is the rejection of the idea that we require an extraordinary explanation because we are here. The universe is here anyway: it doesn't care whether we're here or not (and it has its own anthropic principle, but I'm talking about the biological, not the cosmological one). If we weren't here, we wouldn't be inquiring. Sentience leads to inquiry. Sentience being unlikely doesn't preclude natural explanation.

The Fermi paradox is that, if life can reasonably arise, why don't we have evidence of any other life? It's not technically a paradox, as it is not assumed that life must be so likely that civilizations develop close enough to each other to be able to initiate contact.

I want to apply the anthropic principle to the Fermi paradox and arrive at conclusions that are even MORE counterintuitive. For example: We're an isolated civilization, which by definition means we haven't encountered any Others. But maybe isolated civilizations are improbable! Just because this facet of our existence might be improbable doesn't mean that we've failed to recognize nearby complex life (or that our lack of contact requires extraordinary explanation). Civilizations that develop with a great deal of contact with their Others, will never worry about this problem. We might be a rare intelligence to have to wonder about this. Just because we're wondering about it doesn't mean our experience is typical.

To turn this again on its head: If we suppose that, due to the number of stars in the universe, individual intelligent life forms (e.g., specifically Homo sapiens) are improbable, but some kind of intelligent life is inevitable, and that there are many, perhaps billions of such life forms, then it may be possible or even likely, that despite most of them being isolated, that a select few may have contact with each other. THESE rare and fortunate intelligent beings may thereby initially draw false conclusions that intelligence is common. Again, they must also apply something like the anthropic principle if they wish to secure objectivity.

Aside: We suppose that life must be carbon based and oxygen breathing. But why? Maybe life in other star systems that has life analogous to our plant life, produces something other than oxygen out of their equivalent of photosynthesis. This doesn't mean they can't produce their equivalent of animals! It means that their more complex life forms are the ones that are naturally selected by their survival in a different atmosphere. To claim that life requires our specific biochemistry is simply argument by lack of imagination, or from personal incredulity. We never could have dreamed up our own biochemistry; we learned of it through observation. That is hardly proof that there could be no other.


Human history is incredibly young. As I understand it, in Star Trek, they constructed the Prime Directive as an explanation for why, if sentient beings are whizzing about the galaxy, they never had occasion to visit Sol, and Terra, before the space age. I don't know if that's needed. We might just never have been found. Hundreds of billions of stars might take some time to sift through. Or there might be some sort of Prime Directive out there that only applies to biological and not to cultural considerations. Our prehuman ancestors, anywhere from bacteria to primates, might have been observed from afar by beings who did not want to interfere because they could not calculate what impact their visitation could have on our climate or geology, and therefore our evolution, for example. We might think we're alone merely because They are cosmological non-interventionist environmentalists! Or maybe we're one of the most advanced life forms in the galaxy, but this will not necessarily be true of the intelligent life on our planet in a billion years, if there still is any. Contact could be a near certainty on a cosmological time scale, while still being incredibly unlikely within, say, the next ten thousand years, and still being merely improbable within the next ten million.


I'm not an exobiological nihilist, that is to say, I'm not saying we can't really know anything, that any of our hypotheses have just come from lack of imagination of alternatives. I think that the idea that life is common, but rare enough that isolation is also common, is probably true. But I would advocate more flexible thinking. I find the idea of the anthropic principle applied to our era to be compelling, and also that other, incredible, unfathomable biochemistries are possible.

The Prisoner's Dilemma in politics


I suggest that modern political races in this country are generally modeled on the prisoner's dilemma. Races that are well-funded, with expert political strategists on both sides always go to the Nash equilibrium. Lesser races can yield any of the other results. For convenience, I'll state the dilemma approximately in its classic form, and then indicate how you'd restate the variables in my idea.

Two suspects are accused of a crime and held separately. Each can choose to remain silent, or testify against the other suspect (defect) for a reduced sentence. If one defects and the other remains silent, the defector goes free and the other gets ten years in prison. If they both remain silent, they'll both get convicted on a lesser charge and each serve six months. If they both defect, they each get five years in prison.

The problem assumes that there are no other costs or benefits from the prisoners' decisions, and that neither has an interest in the welfare of the other. I put the important variables in bold. How would I apply this game to politics? Obviously, in American politics, most contests for office are contested by two major candidates: they are the suspects. How do I define remaining silent, defecting, and the different prison sentences? About like this. In general, voters want politicians to promise to balance the budget, lower taxes, and provide more services. It is utterly impossible to do all three of these things simultaneously, and the candidates know this, so they have a choice: They can be honest and state their ideas about which goals they really want to achieve (remain silent), or defect: lie and state that they will do all three. This is the nature of the dilemma. If both candidates are truthful, this is tantamount to both getting six months; neither candidate compromises his ideals, and the election is fair, and based on which politician's ideas are more in line with voter priorities. If one candidate defects, i.e. lies and promises the impossible, and the other does not, the liar/defector wins by a landslide: this is ten years versus going free. If both candidates lie, it is easy to see how this is like both getting five years: they have both compromised their ideals, and the election will be close. The latter is a Nash equilibrium: no matter what your opponent does, you get more utility from defecting, so both players defect.

The only minor inconsistency I find here, in the values of my variables relative to each other, is that the going free substitution requires compromising one's ideals, which is worse (lower utility) than the six months substition of having a fair election dominated by the issues. I think it still works, however; we assume that ensuring election has much greater utility than that lost by failing to preserve ideals (for a politician), i.e. the ends justifies the means, although you'd prefer more ethical means if you didn't have an opponent. (Which makes me wonder: in races where one party fails to field a candidate, and the only candidate actually does some campaigning, does he/she bother to "defect"? There might be reasonable motives for doing so: a vulnerable, truthful platform might inspire the other party to unexpectedly enter the race, or the candidate may have no ideals, and simply be interested in popularity, perhaps as political capital for future elections, regardless of whether his/her promises make any sense. If my idea is correct, then one-candidate elections may give us valuable insight into the motivations of individual politicians: power or ideals?)

Some may object that the prisoner's dilemma game has only one turn and both players choose their move simultaneously, whereas elections play out over several months. I'd justify ignoring that aspect with the idea that damage done to one's campaign by any accusation of "flip-flopping" is sufficient deterrent that races actually are played out as essentially simultaneous one-turn games.

First post

I wanted to change my blog's URL, but I don't know how to do it except by creating a new one and copying all the old posts manually, so I am about to become the most prolific blog writer ever, with thirteen posts in just minutes.


Here I begin. This is not my first attempt at keeping a blog; during some of my most successful periods as a fledgling professional poker player, I kept another.

"What is my purpose?" I ask myself. That is a good question, I reply, as I am often long on ideas, short on eloquence. I aim to set down some of my ideas here as I get them, however awkward my language may be. I hope to use it as an outlet to share my ideas and receive some feedback from others with similar areas of interest, but I will be satisfied simply to have them set down, so I can develop them over time, and get a better sense of my own personal development. When I get an idea that intrigues me, I tend to work it out a bit by discussing it aloud with my empty living room. Little is preserved, and I get less of an objective perspective from myself. Is this relevant? Is it interesting? Is it ridiculous? Is it trivial? Hopefully (it's a disjunct adverb, grammarians, get over it), this no frills blog will provide me that.

What are those areas of interest? Specifically: Humanity. Broadly: Education, ethics, morality, politics, war, religion, U.S. foreign relations, collateral damage, torture, genocide, tolerance, atheism, theism, anthropology, biology, evolution, social progress, sexuality, science, faith, superstition, secularism, logic, reason, classical music, technology, statistics and probability, game theory, history, medicine, law, psychology, conspiracy theorists, cults, racism, free speech, hate speech, philanthropy, abortion, poker, and traffic safety.

Wha? Classical music? Poker? Traffic safety? I used to play and teach music for a living, and my passion for music remains. I dropped out of school and changed professions (to poker). Okay... but traffic safety, you say? Yes, I think the issue does not receive enough attention. Driving is one of the most dangerous things we do, and it carries with it a high fatality rate, about 1% (over the course of a lifetime). Granted, biking and walking are even more dangerous, but only because most people do these things near moving cars. And what qualifies this gambling degenerate to speak about our great social issues? Nothing, but I submit my ideas are worth testing on their own merits. And that is what I intend to find out, as I return to school in January, after three years off, and work towards making a positive impact in the world.

"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Gauguin)

Biology, history, anthropology, and psychology have helped us answer the first two, and should help us to answer the third as well.